Pivot drills

Shockers roll despite coaching change, transfers and pandemic

Written by Joe Stumpe

So much for freshman jitters, sophomore slumps and “senioritis.” The Wichita State Shockers basketball team proved all of those college clichés wrong through the first two-thirds of its 2020-21 season.

The “freshman” is interim head coach Isaac Brown, thrust into the job when Gregg Marshall resigned under pressure. Brown had many years of experience as an assistant coach but this was his first time in charge. All he did was lead the team to a 12-4 record and tie for first place in the American Athletic Conference through mid-February.

The sophomore is Tyson Etienne. The guard from New Jersey had a good year as a freshman, averaging 9.4 points per game and threatening some WSU rookie records before the pandemic shut down the season. But few predicted what he’d accomplish this year, ranking among AAC leading scorers with a 17.2 average and becoming the team’s first (but not only) option in crunch time.

The seniors are forward Trey Wade and point guard Alterique Gilbert. Wade led the team in rebounds and doing a little bit of everything else while serving as the team’s “glue guy.” Gilbert, a fifth-year senior transfer from the University of Connecticut, led the team in assists and steals and trailed only Etienne in scoring.

And they certainly had plenty of help. Junior guard Dennis Dexter’s shooting was off but he made up for that with all-conference (if not All-American) defense, usually assigned to slow down the opposing team’s best player. Junior forward Morris Udeze has looked like a different player, powering through and around bigger opponents to give the Shockers a scoring threat in the low post. Freshman Ricky Council IV, sophomore Clarence Jackson and juniors Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler and Craig Porter, Jr. have contributed off the bench.

Under Brown, the Shockers showed a knack for winning close games and, perhaps with one exception, never seemed to believe they were beaten, no matter what the score.

“We’d love to have him back (as head coach) next year, for sure,” Udeze said.

Wade said Brown was succeeding in part because he hadn’t tried to radically alter what the Shockers were doing, successfully, under Marshall.

“Just because (Marshall) isn’t here, doesn’t mean the system doesn’t work,” he said. “Why not roll with it?”

A pandemic and Marshall’s abrupt departure weren’t the program’s only disruptions. Eight scholarship players from last year’s squad transferred. Wade said that made for a different type of team this year.

“We have a lot of upperclassmen. We’ve got guys that are more composed and don’t really fold under pressure, just because they’re older and more experienced.”

Etienne attributed the quantum leap in his production to rigorous off-season training, when he sought to identify and then attack any weaknesses in his game. The result is a physically impressive guard who’s confident shooting from the NBA three-point line or taking it into the lane.

“He’s making shots at a high clip,” Wade said. “It’s impressive to see. Tyson definitely puts in the work. This is what he do.”

When the University of Central Florida did succeed in shutting down Etienne through double teams, Gilbert made the crucial shots and Dennis recorded the team’s first double-double of the season.

The Shockers faced a tough stretch of games to end the regular season, partly due to the pandemic-shuffled schedule. Whatever happens, they had made pre-season predictions of mediocrity look misguided. Udeze said the plan is to “go out, practice hard every day and prove them wrong. We’re just trying to stay locked in as a team.”

Shocker women show resiliency

“Crazy, crazy, crazy.”

That’s how Shockers women’s coach Keitha Adams sums up the 2020-21 season. And yet, she says, “I can’t complain. It’s been the most unique year I’ve ever coached.”

Unique because in addition to keeping track of wins and losses, there are Covid-19 numbers to reflect on. Adams said players and coaches had been tested about 50 times through-mid February.

“You’re going and testing three times a week.”

Again, she’s not complaining.

“The school and the conference are doing the right thing to make sure we’re staying safe.”

The Shockers started out 4-9, with 9 games postponed or cancelled. “The biggest thing is just the disruption and having absolutely no flow in our season,” said Adams.

Mariah McCully, named to the AAC’s all-conference third team last season, was quarantined three times for a total of 38 days. Adams thinks she’s had 10 players healthy and able to practice together only about three or four times all season. Against South Florida, then ranked No. 18 in the country, the Shockers suited up just seven players and still hung with the Bull for three quarters.

One obvious bright spot for the team has been the play of junior forward Asia Strong, who leads the team in scoring and has made the AAC weekly honor roll three times. Guards Seraphine Bastin and DJ McCarty have also made the honor roll.

Adams stressed that she’s proud of all the players, noting that some teams chose to forfeit all their games this year rather than battle through adversity and uncertainty.

“It’s been a struggling season in the win-loss column and that’s been really hard, but I have to tell you I’m very proud of our team and staff for just continuing to be resilient.”

Shocker fans cheer for team and its interim coach

When the Wichita State Shocker basketball team lost a home game earlier this season, Sherl Weatherbee knew just what was wrong.

“I remember reaching out to (WSU Athletic Director) Darron Boatright. I said we’ve got to have some fans in there,” Weatherbee, a longtime season ticket holder, said. “We would have won that game with fans.”

She may be right. Since Sedgwick County began allowing a limited number of fans to attend, the Shockers have gone 8-1 at Koch Arena, and longtime fans such as Weatherbee may be part of the reason.

As TV announcers have noted, those fans seem to be making a racket out of proportion to their actual numbers.

The county began by allowing the arena to be filled to 5 percent capacity, or about 525 fans. Through mid-February the capacity had been increased to 25 percent, or 2,625 fans. Fans must wear masks and are spread around the arena rather than in their usual seats.

“Early on, it was like a preseason game, kind of quiet, but now that we’re in conference games, it gets pretty loud,” said John Foust, a WSU grad who’s had season tickets for over a decade.

Weatherbee said fans have come up with a new way to make themselves heard.

“We bang on the seats and they make a lot of noise,” she said. “My friends watching at home say, ‘Keep it up, we can hear you.’ That’s going to be the only thing I miss when the pandemic is gone, banging on those seats. But I want the arena full of fans for the guys.”

Weatherbee, 65, attended her first Shocker game at the age of six months — her parents had tickets when WSU played at The Forum downtown — and has had season tickets in her own name since 1975. She and her husband, Tony, generally attend every game with their daughter, Staycey, a former WSU cheerleader. Most years, they also go to many away games. They’ve not done that this year but plan to travel to Fort Worth for the American Athletic Conference tournament. If the Shockers get an NCAA tourney bid, they’ll go to the site of that game, too.

“We just feel very blessed that they allowed fans in” to Koch, Weatherbee said. “It’s a big deal to us. We call ourselves Shocker Nation for a reason. I would just like to congratulate Coach (Isaac) Brown. Most of us, we want them to take away that ‘interim’ (coach label). We’re ready for it. We believe in him.”

Other fans echoed that, saying the Shockers’ 12-4 record through mid-February, when they were tied for first place in the AAC, was better than they expected. Seeing games in person, they’ve been struck by the way the players perform for Brown, a longtime assistant promoted to interim head coach after the departure of Gregg Marshall.

“I am totally surprised by their success this year,” said season ticket holder Joe Johnson. “The team looks like they’re playing together.”

“The kids like Brown a lot,” Foust said. “He’s a take-charge kind of guy and a player’s coach for sure. I hope they extend him an offer.”

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